A few weeks ago Scott Adams gave us one of his all-time great Dilbert comic strips. (See this issue online, or www.dilbert.com for the full color version.) The punch line is when the pointy-haired boss shouts “STOP BEING ENGINEERS!”
In my last message I noted that the term “engineer” derives from the same root word that gives us the adjective “ingenious.” Engineers, as Scott constantly reminds us, never tire of tinkering—of engaging our brains in the quest to improve things—whether it’s a bridge, a damaged ecosystem, an organization, or even a meeting. There are two very important aspects of this quest. The first part—analysis—is where we seek to understand, to know, how a “thing” really works; to define that “thing” as a functioning system—the minute details of both its structure and its dynamics. We then work to represent that system quantitatively—often to an extreme degree—so that we can accurately and precisely replicate and predict the effect of small changes. The second part—design—is where we develop our own specific recommendation for the improved “thing” that will best meet our client’s needs. I’ll talk more about this second part in my next column. Today, I’d like to just focus on the first part.
As Scott’s strip shows, engineers like to analyze. We enjoy asking questions. But more than this, we relish asking questions that matter—questions that get to the heart of things and not superficial, small-talk/chit-chat questions; awkward questions; questions that don’t have easy answers. And we don’t accept an answer “just because” it’s in a book, or it’s always been good enough, or it’s what so-and-so says, or it’s what the boss says (even though we agree to go with the boss’ answer). We are good at avoiding what logicians call fallacies, what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, what behavioral economists call confirmation bias, and what today is often referred to as magical thinking. This is especially true when you put a group of engineers together—that’s when the fun really starts. Everyone ups their game and the questions get sharper and deeper.
In some circles asking difficult questions might jeopardize one’s reputation as a “team player.” But engineers get that there is a big difference between earnest skepticism and corrosive cynicism. Engineers cherish skepticism—the notion that ultimate understanding requires a lot of effort and you have to prove your point with solid, painstaking—e.g., mathematical—reasoning. Engineering fosters a “BS free zone.” Unlike a cynic though, we aren’t frustrated by the need for a perfect answer. Instead we recognize and appreciate the utility of a best answer—one that advances the State of the Practice. Of course, we are not above a bit of sarcasm to make a point (Wally.)
Have you had a chance to play a game of fifty questions with some fellow engineers recently? If not, you’re missing out on perhaps the BEST part of being an engineer. So let me help you out. Get some colleagues together—maybe around a couple pizzas—and get the sparks flying with some of the following questions:
- What is everyone working on?
- What are our biggest challenges?
- What are we learning about the State of the Practice and how to apply it/advance it with respect to those challenges?
- Is there a senior engineer around here (or in town) who can help us out?
- What would we really like to work on?
- What “ingenious” work is going on around here/town?
- Where do we see ourselves in five years?
- Do we see ourselves becoming a Principal Engineer where we have the ultimate responsibility and authority for projects?
- What is the path for becoming a Principal Engineer?
- How can we make this a better place to work?
- Who is a member of ASCE?
- What do you get out of ASCE?
- Are the ASCE monthly luncheons any good?
- What is this Centennial Celebration of the Louisiana Section all about?
- Should we consider helping out our local ASCE Branch more?
Don’t ever stop being an engineer. Don’t ever stop asking tough questions—especially when it comes to ASCE! And while you’re at it, pass the cheese bread!
Look for an email announcement in mid-May with program details on
The Louisiana ASCE Centennial Celebration Gala
August 9th at the Renaissance Hotel in Baton Rouge
Details will include ticket purchase information and special offers from your Branch!